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Ex-priest accused of abuse in California

A priest who worked 25 years in the Oakland Diocese is charged with molesting two altar boys in the 1970s and '80s.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2003

BROOKSVILLE -- A San Francisco Bay area priest who retired to Hernando County three years ago was arrested Wednesday at his home in the Heather on charges of sexually molesting two altar boys in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Robert Ponciroli, 66, of 9418 Nakoma Way, is charged with six counts of lewd and lascivious acts upon a minor, according to authorities in California. Hernando County Sheriff's deputies made the arrest Wednesday morning after warrants were signed in California. Ponciroli was held in the Hernando County Jail in lieu of $600,000 bail.

Police in Antioch, Calif., began their investigation nearly a year ago, after a 31-year-old man said he had been molested by the priest while serving as an altar boy at the St. Ignatius Church. He said the incidents occurred between 1979 and 1981.

Later, a second man, who is now 40, came forward in Oakland with similar charges stemming from acts he said occurred between 1973 and 1974. Ponciroli was also named the defendant in a civil suit filed by one of the victims.

Sgt. Scott Willerford, a detective with the Antioch Police Department, said the first man to come forward said he had been ashamed of what happened but eventually reconciled in his mind that what Ponciroli did was wrong; he needed to speak up, Willerford said.

Willerford said media coverage of other abuse cases involving priests may have helped bring these men forward. "Some don't want to be the lone wolf," Willerford said.

Under California law, only certain severe cases of child sexual abuse can be prosecuted beyond the three years following a child's 18th birthday, Willerford said.

The charges against Ponciroli reflect two victims whose allegations were severe enough to meet that criterion, he said, but there were others who reported less severe forms of abuse that could not be prosecuted.

Willerford said Antioch deputies came to Florida in July to interview Ponciroli, who spent more than 25 years in various churches of the Oakland Diocese.

Records show that Ponciroli has no criminal record in Florida. Hernando County Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Joe Paez said there had been no reports against Ponciroli since he came to Hernando County.

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